How Grip Strength Connects to Overall Fitness
Plus, how you can improve it.
Not long ago, a small corner of TikTok rallied around the “One Trip Challenge,” where competitors carried as many overstuffed grocery bags as possible from one point to another. It didn’t exactly break the internet; it was a fun marketing stunt by a Greek yogurt brand hoping to draw a connection between their protein-packed product and feats of superhuman strength. But it was completely relatable: Who hasn’t stared into the trunk of a car at a heap of groceries and thought, Yeah, I can totally get this inside in one load?
Whether you actually can do it is determined by your grip strength—the same force that lets you hang on when your dog suddenly takes off after a squirrel, or climb up or down a ladder, or pull an outward-opening door on a windy day. Stirring a pot of risotto, opening a jar of pickles, hoisting up a toddler or tearing up an old bank statement: Whenever you do any of these things, you are engaging grip strength.
What is grip strength?
“In the simplest terms, grip strength covers your ability to close your hand,” says Mia Nikolajev, a strength and conditioning coach and trained firefighter. But more than that, “it indicates your ability to generate strength at the end of your limb, and it’s basically an indicator for muscular strength and tone.” Grip strength is shorthand for your overall fitness, and it’s why your doctor may also be interested in measuring it at your next physical exam: Multiple studies show that those with a stronger handgrip are also at lower risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and strokes.
One of the most convincing studies followed half a million participants over three and a half years to see if there was a correlation between grip strength, mortality and disease. Participants ranged in age from 40 to 69, and encompassed a range of ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, pre-existing conditions and lifestyle behaviours, like physical activity and diet—a pretty decent sampling of the general population. For both men and women, researchers found that a lower grip strength was associated with a higher risk of mortality in general, and a higher rate in particular of developing and dying from “cardiovascular disease, all respiratory disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, all cancer, and colorectal, lung and breast cancer.” Whew.
“We also know that muscular strength and endurance are pre-indicators of the potential for bone density loss, and specifically osteoporosis in women, who tend to be more prone to these conditions,” says Nikolajev. “If you tend to be stronger or have more muscle mass, muscle density and a habit of training or fitness, you’re less likely to incur non-hereditary disorders or illness.”
How do you measure it?
Grip strength is typically tested in a clinic using a hand dynamometer where you sit with your feet flat on the floor, arms held at right angles with the elbows tucked beside the body. Then, grasp the handle of the instrument, squeeze it for all you’re worth and hold for five seconds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, men aged 20-30 typically have the greatest strength, while women over 75 have the weakest. According to a study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, the “mean grip strength ranged from 49.7 kg for the dominant hand of men 25 to 29 years of age to 18.7 kg for the non-dominant hand of women 75 to 79 years of age.”
Naturally, aging causes a decline in both muscle mass and function, and as it goes, so does grip strength. But there are a number of easy, at-home ways to build and maintain it, so you can button your pants well into your 90s (because, yup, pants-buttoning requires grip strength too).
How to improve grip strength
Nikolajev tells her clients to put a couple of milk cartons, or free weights, in a tote bag and just hold it for 20 to 30 seconds, then build duration from there. “You could go for a walk around your home, or even just march in place. You’re trying to create instability and force your hand to do a little bit more work.”
You can also try the finger pinch hold, which is as simple as holding a sheet of paper between your thumb and each of your fingers for 30 seconds each. “Tell me your hand isn’t gonna feel that work out!” she says.
Nikolajev adds, “One of my favourite exercises—which is also just good for overall back health and taking stress off your hips after sitting all day—is a free hang.” You need an overhanging bar or frame that can support your bodyweight; look for one at a local park. Then, Nikolajev explains, “Just wrap your fingers around [the bar] and hold on. Start at 10 or 20 or 30 seconds. If you are comfortable with that, go for a maximum hold, just to see where you wind up. Then cut that [time] in half and repeat.”
Keep in mind that for your grip to be strong, you’ve got to be able to extend the muscles on the other side of your hand, which will also determine how well you’ll be able to hold onto something. To do this, Nikolajev suggests putting your hands in a bucket of rice and drawing shapes with your fingers. “You’re making outward circles, inward circles, closing your hands, opening your hands, digging them deep into the bucket.” It’s a trick long used by boxers and martial artists to increase their grip and forearm strength, as well as wrist flexibility and power. Plus, it feels cool, and you can do it in front of Netflix.
“In fitness, we tend to focus so much on the big moves: the squats, lunges, flexion, the push and pull,” says Nikolajev. “We very much miss the fact that without strong feet and hands—especially hands—most of those things are impossible to do.” And if hauling all your groceries in a single trip doesn’t feel like something to strive for, buttoning your own darn pants in your golden years very much should be.